Novi Sad, Serbia
Novi Sad is my introduction to Serbia. The second-largest city in the country, it’s the first main hub I get to on the train down from Budapest and I jump off here.
It’s not a station fit for a metropolis.. but, then again, Novi Sad is not one.
It’s evening and I head straight for a hotel. The owner greets me warmly, makes the obligatory reference to kangaroos when I tell him where I’m from, then starts to chat.
He tells me it’s a family business and that Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic is currently winning his match at Wimbledon.
At least, these are the two key points I think I understand. He speaks with a mix of English, Serbian and enthusiastic expressions and expects me to understand. His favourite words are ‘super’ and ‘wow’.
“Room has super bathroom. Wow!”
“Weather good. Super. Wow!”
I appreciate the effort and try to keep my responses limited to words with as few syllables as possible. I also speak highly of Djokovic and his forehand. He really is a very kind man.
After a bit of pigeon English and a few hand gestures, he recommends a nearby restaurant for dinner. The waiter speaks slightly more English and helps me with the menu.
“Would you like a Serbian salad too?” he asks.
“Do you know what is in it?”
We both laugh for some reason, although I’m not sure exactly why. I realise why when the salad arrives and is full of green chillies. Slav like it hot.
It’s not even been a few hours and already I’m impressed by the kindness and friendliness of those I’ve met. There’s a warmth (even without the chillies) that is welcoming.
All I knew of Serbia before I decided to come here was war crimes and gun-smuggling villains from Hollywood movies.
So far nobody has had a truck of AK47s or even an evil-signifying face scar!
Petrovaradin Fortress, Novi Sad, Serbia
Over the next few weeks I will be bringing you some correspondence from Serbia.
Hopefully it will show you what’s on offer from a tourist’s perspective of the country but also delve a little into the culture, the history and, in particular, how recent events have shaped the nation.
I suppose there’s no better place to start than Novi Sad which – although a friend described it as very Hungarian – is a good example of the blend of old history and new.
The city is know these days for two things: the impressive fortress which overlooks the city across the river and the music festival which is held in it every year.
The Petrovaradin Fortress was built in the seventeenth century to protect Novi Sad from the Turkish. It dominates the view along the river and reminds the citizens that conflict in this part of the world is not restricted to this generation but has been ever present.
Still, it has also been the scene of one of the most recent when the Exit Festival was launched in 2000. It had the express aim of calling for the end of the regime of Slobodan Milosevic, the controversial President at the time.
Despite his removal from power a few months later, the festival continues and preparations are underway for this year’s event as I visit.
In the main streets of the central part of the city, there’s a modern attitude to social values amongst the traditional architecture.
Cafes line the pavements, large pedestrian areas encourage the ebb and flow of daily life, and kilometres of bike paths keep the traffic in check.
Hip bars and restaurants host people all day long and in front of the city’s biggest Orthodox church, a DJ spins tracks to promote the upcoming festival.
I use the free wifi in the central city to check the lineup. I see a few familiar names from my time working in Australian media and I realise how small the world is.
I wonder. Is this what I should expect from the rest of my trip through Serbia?
Am I going to discover that a world away, through bombs and dictators, after centuries of nationalistic conflict and realignment, that this country is just as ‘super’ as all of ours? Wow!